Travelling to Kyoto, Japan

Even in a city driven by adherence to rules, there is tranquility.

Credit: Matt O’Grady

Travelling to Kyoto, Japan: A sense of calm
defines the city of 1.5 million.

A sense of zen commands Japanese travel destination Kyoto.

Poor Kyoto. Founded in 794 as Heian-kyo – “capital of peace and tranquility” – the city is arguably one of the world’s more impressive tourist destinations, with a rich cultural heritage, a refined cuisine and a gracious populace. But for many, the city’s modern-day moniker is tainted by an environmental accord that’s produced nothing but global discord. Stéphane Dion, our dearly departed national punching bag, even named his Siberian husky after Kyoto to prove his green bona fides. Poor dog.

I arrive in Kyoto 16 years after the Protocol was signed, and one month before the Liberal party pushed Dion (and his dog) off the national stage. The city – which has survived earthquakes, fires, a decade-long civil war and the loss of capital status to Tokyo – was unperturbed. Indeed, a sense of calm defines the city of 1.5 million, which lies 500 kilometres southwest of frenetic Tokyo. Kyotoites stop to smell the roses – or, rather, the iconic cherry blossoms – seemingly oblivious to global politics and economic turmoil.

When I visit, it is the autumnal turning of leaves that brings both locals and tourists out in droves, walking leisurely amidst the city’s 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines. Unlike a lot of Japanese cities, Kyoto was spared the firebombing of the Second World War and is thus considered one the country’s best-preserved cultural regions. Many of the popular sites (especially among the countless groups of yellow-hatted Japanese schoolchildren) can be found along a 1.5-kilometre stretch of eastern Kyoto known as the Philosopher’s Walk, including the Buddhist temples Nanzen-ji and Ginkaku-ji.

Nanzen-ji, at the southern tip of the walk, was built in 1291 and remains one of Kyoto’s centres of Zen Buddhism.

Weather  Best times – for both temperature and foliage – are April or early November

Can’t Miss  Consider a day trip (45 minutes) to Himeji to explore Japan’s finest surviving samurai castle.

Cool Eats  Vegetable udon noodles. The Omen chainlet (three Kyoto locations, one in New York) specializes in the popular dish.

Best Bed  A ryokan, or guest house. Kyoto has many options for this authentic experience, from basic to ultra-luxe.

Climb the stairs of the two-storey Sanmon (main gate) to get a panoramic perspective on the pine-studded property, with its various sub-temples and impressive red-brick aqueduct. Ginkaku-ji, or “the Silver Pavilion,” sits at the northern tip and was built in 1474 as a mountain retreat for the shogun Yoshimasa, who later became a Buddhist monk and deeded the villa to his fellow monks. The villa-cum-temple was modelled after another shogun retreat, the so-called Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) but, unlike that one, never got the appropriate paint job. Today the main attractions are Kinkaku-ji’s tranquil wooded grounds and famous rock-and-sand garden.

With over 2,000 temples and shrines, it’s easy to get a bit dizzy from all the burning incense and clanging bells, so on day three I turn my attention from Kyoto’s outer edges to its historic core. The Gion District – on the east side of the Kamo River – has, since feudal times, served as the place where pilgrims and other visitors eat, drink and rest, and continues to house Kyoto’s best selection of cafés, izakayas and noodle joints, as well as an array of bustling shops. Gion is also where, after dusk, you are likeliest to catch one of the city’s famed geishas as she jumps out of a car and into one of the district’s pricier restaurants, where rich and powerful male clients await.
Being neither rich nor powerful, I dine alone at an economical soba noodle café on the main drag, Shijo-Dori. I pull out some reading – a copy of the English-language daily Japan Times. The front-page headline proclaims that Japan has officially entered its second major recession in under a decade, with business confidence at an all-time low. I peer outside at the busy street: apparently nobody has noticed.

My Secret Place
Who: Ron Burnett, president and vice-chancellor, Emily Carr University of Art and Design. Where: Royal Botanical Gardens, Melbourne, Australia Why: “The Tan” is truly one of the world’s great places to just walk. The intense aromas, the variety of species and extremes of lush and arid conditions create a marvellous clash of environments. What I find most fascinating is the contrast between traditional garden design and the nature of the Southern Hemisphere – you can enjoy a scone in a wonderful English tea house then get lost in a tropical jungle surrounded by fruit bats. Remarkable.